Author : Ramanath Jha

Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on Apr 17, 2020
Post pandemic city planning One of the greatest impacts COVID19 should leave ought to be on post pandemic city planning. Indian cities, for far too long, have grown without a serious consideration given to issues that are likely to come back repeatedly to haunt us. This article lists a set of ten questions that arise out of the current and past pandemics that future city planning templates must earnestly contend with. The COVID 19 pandemic is the latest in a series of pandemics and epidemics that have visited mankind. Plague, flu, Spanish flu, Swine Flu and many others have wreaked havoc on human beings, including Indians. All these have had one central mandate for keeping them at bay – ‘social distancing’. In urban planning parlance, connoting the spatial context, the better phrase would be ‘physical distancing’. After all, social intimacy and interaction could happen even over large distances. If physical distancing is the key ingredient for stopping the spread of viruses that are so destructive of human life, some of the questions that arise are the following:
  1. How dense should a city be? (Aggregation vs disaggregation)
  2. How should people travel? (Public Transport vs private transport)
  3. How should people work? (Workplace vs work from home)
  4. How should people shop? (Retail outlets vs online shopping)
  5. How should the young learn? (Classroom vs online)
  6. How should people consult doctors? (Visit to doctor vs telemedicine)
  7. How should people socialize? (Bonding vs distancing)
  8. How much of the city should be unbuilt? (Built city vs Public Open spaces)
  9. How should the city plan for its poor? (Slums vs housing)
  10. How much digital Infrastructure should a city go for? (Digital vs manual)
A brief statement about each is made below. The idea in this brief article is to put them on the table for broader policy deliberation.
  1. Ever since man began crafting cities, economic productivity and generation of wealth have generally been at the top of the agenda. However, the desire for more aggregation in search for more money led to adverse consequences and forced a rethink in urban design. Factors in the external atmosphere included concerns of health and environment, climate change and disasters including epidemics and pandemics. In the light of the need for physical distancing, demographic density must be controlled by all possible means lest physical distancing becomes an impossibility. ’Dharavis’ cannot be allowed to happen and endless densification playing out in the cities must be stopped.
  2. For several decades, personalised vehicles had come under attack all over the world on account of several factors, including congestion, parking and environmental pollution. Unfortunately, the virus is likely to strike a major blow to the global move towards public transportation. Public transport with physical distancing may not be financially viable. While personal motor vehicles may still not find favour and public transport may work well in normal times, cities would do well to move towards pedestrianisation and bicycles. By inference, this means a move towards building modest-sized cities that can be covered on a bicycle.
  3. Physical distancing imposes the need to promote, wherever possible, work from home. Whereas it may be difficult to do a large number of jobs from home, the effort has to be to maximise the possibilities that do not require social congregation. This will have the multiple benefit of less travel, less cost and more output. A large number of jobs would fit the bill and many others can be redesigned for work from home. This will also enhance city affordability and environment.
  4. Online shopping is a growing phenomenon in India. It is one of the most visible changes that technology has brought to people’s lives. Progressive enhancements in internet technology, online payment security and rapid delivery systems have made internet shopping a flourishing global industry. India’s online shopping percentages are rising every year. Convenience, cost, variety and time – all work in favour of online shopping. All effort, therefore, needs to be made to see that this replaces traditional shopping to the fullest extent.
  5. In the digital world, a huge amount of education could happen online. Students can be saved the burden of carrying books to schools and can instead carry information in the digital format. Actual school attendance and interactive sessions could be reduced to say, twice a week. This would free up space for more students and would lead to more intensive use of educational assets. Digital learning, thereby, can accelerate education, cut costs and generate revenue through multi-tasking of educational space.
  6. During the pandemic, a lot of health consultation is happening on phone. Doctors are digitally communicating prescriptions to patients. In view of the lockdown, Government has issued telemedicine practice guidelines and the Indian Medical Association (IMA) has endorsed them. As a general policy, however, the IMA has "severe objections to telemedicine practice”. On account of complications that may arise, this may not be advisable in normal times. But in a severe crisis, this may be a worthwhile idea. In any event, hospitals need to be freshly designed to handle contagions.
  7. Eating out in restaurants was where citizens socialized, events were celebrated, business deals were struck and a whole host of other dealings happened. The industry is now on the precipice of oblivion, given some relief by takeaways and home delivery. In the post pandemic world, the restaurant industry may never be the same; they will be in uncharted waters and may have to contend with new realities demanding a new business model.
  8. There is no doubt that the cities would have to look at a more robust and a much larger public open space policy, somewhere around 25 percent of total space in the city. This could be achieved by more vertical construction on a smaller plot footprint without unnecessarily raising floor space index and city density. Cities, among other things, require space for disaster management and a healthy citizenry. This gets constricted if public open spaces are not available.
  9. Mumbai’s Dharavi and Delhi’s slums have demonstrated that stuffing the poor into a small city landmass has enormous health consequences, especially during a pandemic. A city that wishes to survive must provide rental and ownership housing to the poor. The Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) norm of 30 square metre for a poor family needs to be strictly adhered to and any unauthorised construction of the kind that currently exists cannot be part of a livable, sustainable city. Cities, therefore, must spell out their comprehensive poverty planning strategies.
  10. It is pretty obvious that cities have to opt for massive digital infrastructure that would support a shift to the modern methods of a digitised world. The Digital India platform, already under implementation, will be the base of connectivity between the diverse authorities, public bodies and other private entities. The vision of the programme is to empower the society through digital means and to drive knowledge economy in the country. Its vital role in the knowledge world as well as in a pandemic cannot be over-emphasised.
It is appreciated that such a push towards a smart society will still leave areas where physical distancing would not be possible. The idea should be that while normal socialising and many other activities continue to happen in normal ways in normal times, in situations where society needs to shift gears and revert to pandemic-compliant physical distancing – that should be possible because such contingencies have been worked out in city planning. City planners in the coming times will have to re-sharpen their tools and factor these realities in their plans.
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Ramanath Jha

Ramanath Jha

Dr. Ramanath Jha is Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. He works on urbanisation — urban sustainability, urban governance and urban planning. Dr. Jha belongs ...

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